JAZZ PARTY – in conversation with drummer & first leader of the Green Party Group on South Tyneside, Councillor David Francis.

I really believe there are pivotal moments in your life. There are times when things happen and put your life in a different direction. I remember as a kid getting the first Van Halen album and it totally blew my mind, I thought it was amazing – still do now. When I put the record on the turntable, and hearing for the first time Eruption.

I started playing guitar first, and at school had a good teacher who encouraged me on the drums. Then I completed a degree at Leeds College of Music and came back to the North East and got into a bit of teaching, gigging and working in a drum shop.

Around 2010 I was in a bookshop in Newcastle when I picked up Labour MP Tony Benn’s diaries and thought, well there’s more important things going on in the world than drums. I wasn’t happy about how things were going under the coalition so looked at the Green Party – and joined in 2014.

FIRST LOVE

The first music I was into was Michael Jackson then quickly got into rock like Hendrix, Cream then more modern stuff like Iron Maiden. I would go to Pet Sounds in Newcastle and pick up second hand vinyl for £3.00 and also visit the record fairs. I progressed to listening to Frank Zappa and lots of jazz.

There is links with musicians in the North East who have played with known musicians, some are a bit tenuous but others are more legit. I’d point out that my own links to anyone well known where more tenuous than legit, but I did cross paths with people like Gerry Richardson and Ronnie Pearson who were in Last Exit with Sting when he lived up here in the ‘70s.

Gerrie was an organ player and went onto teach music at Newcastle College then The Sage Gateshead. Ronnie was the drummer and went on to have a drum shop in Newcastle. I met them and played in bands a few times with Gerry and worked with Ronnie’s son who also had a drum shop.

Although I doubt Gerry remembers me now as a lot of jazz gigs were thrown together and you would meet loads of other musicians that would lead to getting gigs. It would often be –  ‘We need a drummer next week, can you do it?’

GOING LIVE

I was in loads of bands over the years playing jazz. When it first opened the Sunderland Glass Centre had a posh restaurant and on a Friday and Saturday they would have a trio playing in the corner – I was the drummer from time to time, that’s where I met Gerry.

When I first started playing jazz gigs after my music degree in the late ‘90s there wasn’t an easy way to find out what was going on, then there was a guy called Lance Liddle from South Tyneside who started a Jazz blog. He would review gigs, then add what was coming up.

There was a number of venues in Newcastle like the Jazz Café run by Keith Crombie, there was The Bridge Hotel, and a pub called Beamish Mary, we played those venues a lot. I was also playing in a bluesy rock band at the time, plus doing corporate gigs in places like Edinburgh and Birmingham.

Then a few gigs for the Royal Television Society awards dinner at The Sage. They were a bit surreal as you’d be playing when Aled Jones or Reeves & Mortimer come up on stage to get an award (laughs).

The Customs House Big Band

BIG BRASS SOUND

Through those bands I ended up at South Shields Customs House in the late ‘90s playing in the Big Band which was first put together by Joe Peterson (Community Arts Officer) and first ran by Tommy Moran, then Keith Robinson when I was there. We’d have a rehearsal once a week then go for a drink in The Steamboat. I met my wife at that time – Elaine was a saxophone player.

Most of the time I spent learning how to be a good musician but not spending time out hustling getting gigs, I was waiting for people to call me. I’d get a message to go to Harrogate on a New Year’s Eve and if you done well one of the musicians would recommend me to another gig.

In those jazz gigs you’re playing a fairly standard set rather like rock covers doing Hendrix, even if you haven’t worked it out note for note you know how they go. A lot of musicians have a back catalogue of songs in there (points to head) that they can play.

THAT’S THE TONIC

I did play a lot of gigs where it was written out and as a decent enough music reader I got through. You learn a lot of improvisation and skills on some gigs. One time I got a call off a bass player who I regularly worked with, ‘Can you do a gig in North Allerton with an American keyboard player called Dave Keys’. ‘Yes sounds good’ I said.

He directed the songs, all his, all original, you really had to pay attention and follow his lead. He’d say things like ‘This is a shuffle and a couple of stops, I’ll nod my head at the stop’ those sorts of things you know, directing the song as its being played – in front of the audience (laughs).

But music has common phrases and chord progressions that come up time and time again and you can work through it. I enjoyed the buzz of jazz and improvisation, the not knowing keeps it fresh. There is a saying ‘It’s never the same way once, never mind twice’ (laughs).

Drumming on stage with Tony Bengtsson.

THE MARKET

You’ve got to work on your business and I did eventually take control of that side of things, around 2010. What happened was I was teaching in schools, doing some private lessons, playing gigs but not earning much because I was travelling all over the place.

So I started to build up work closer to home and getting contacts, it’s the working on your business, not just in it, that was needed. Lately in music I’ve played on an album with singer/songwriter Tony Bengtson, he plays a folk, country, Americana style, he’s a really good player and maybe not getting as much recognition as he deserves.

WATCHING THE WORLD GO ROUND

I suppose the performance aspect is a parallel between musician and politician, there may be something in the saying that ‘Politics is showbusiness for ugly people’. It wasn’t in the family at all, my parents took an interest in, but weren’t active in politics.

When I was a kid we lived in the States for a year and on a basic level I became aware of the American history, like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, the  Civil Rights movement, and as I got older I took an interest in current affairs and politics.

I remember being a student in Leeds watching TV shows Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You and then the 1997 election and Tony Blair getting in, a real air of optimism after the Thatcher decade. I’d always listen to Talk radio and listened to the political commentators, watched Question Time, but always observing not taking part.

Around 2010 when I was in a bookshop in Newcastle I picked up a copy of one of Tony Benn’s diaries, then read other volumes and thought, well there’s more important things going on in the world than drums.

With Green’s Deputy Leader, Amelia Womack in South Shields.

GO GREEN

A musician friend who I mentioned earlier, Tony Bengston, was standing as a Green candidate. I wondered what was going on and I wasn’t happy about how things were going under the coalition plus not being enamoured about The Labour Party so I looked at the Green Party and found they weren’t just a one issue party. Actually they were somebody I could connect with and feel more comfortable with, so I joined in 2014.

We’d done a beach litter pick and it felt good to do this in South Shields with nice people, but importantly it was a tangible thing to do, a contribution to improving the area. Then within weeks we were out on the streets knocking on doors. Not long after an opportunity arose to meet the Green’s Deputy Leader Amelia Womack when she came to South Tyneside – the result was I got more involved.

I got elected a few years ago then a few more candidates followed so we aren’t looked upon as the party in South Tyneside who have no chance. Labour has a long history in this town and some responses on the doorstep are ‘I’ve always voted Labour and not interested in anyone else’. Which is fair enough, I get that.

In the council chamber, Town Hall, South Shields.

I HEAR YOU KNOCKING

I’ve only had experience of knocking on doors for the Greens so don’t know what it’s like for everyone else but when I first started in this area (Beacon & Bents, South Shields), a lot of people weren’t sure who we were, some people thought we were the same as Greenpeace. At first we’d hear on the doorstep ‘Are you all about saving the whales?’

Some people aren’t interested, or are watching TV, or got the dinner on, but generally people are really nice and give you a bit time even when they don’t agree with you. Then it got to the stage when people knew of what we were doing, they’d see or hear us working with people and trying to improve the local area.

It surprised me how favourable the response was becoming when people got to know us, and even if they don’t want to talk to you they are still civil about it. You aren’t going to please all the people.

I remember the worst reaction I had was when someone answered the door and he was trying to be polite and his other half was upstairs shouting ‘Just tell him to f*** off’. I’m glad I wasn’t face to face with her – he just looked a bit embarrassed (laughs).

A lot of people just want to talk to you if they have an issue with fly tipping in their back lane or sorting out wonky pavements in the street. They want to talk to somebody who can go away and get something done.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  August 2021